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AsiaTimes: All roads lead to 'reformasi'
By Kapal Berita
7/11/2000 10:11 pm Tue
Source: Asia Times : http://www.atimes.com/se-asia/BK07Ae01.html
From Asia Times Online
All roads lead to 'reformasi'
By Anil Netto
Nothing like it has ever been seen in Malaysia. Amid extraordinary
scenes, tens of thousands of opposition supporters heading for a
cordoned-off rally site outside Kuala Lumpur on Sunday found
themselves in a massive traffic jam that soon turned into an impromptu
highway "reformasi" demonstration that stretched more than five
It was the biggest demonstration within the greater Kuala Lumpur area
against the 19-year rule of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad since the
huge protests in the capital on September 20, 1998, the day former
deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested.
Thousands of cars and vans choked all highways leading to Jalan Kebun,
near Shah Alam, the capital of central Selangor state, despite stern
warnings from the authorities to stay away. Traffic came to a
standstill and almost everyone got out of their vehicles and "took
over" the Kesas highway as a helicopter clattered helplessly overhead
trying to gauge the scale of the protest.
In the hours leading to the rally, hundreds of security personnel
staged a major show of force to block the rally, which was declared
illegal. Organizers, who had twice applied for a permit to use the
National Stadium only to be refused permission, decided to go ahead
with it anyway, on private property.
Later, police used water cannon and fired tear gas into the
"frontline" demonstrators, forcing opposition party leaders to leave
the scene as soon as they had finished their speeches.
By day's end, when the crowd had dispersed, no one could be sure how
many had turned up for the event, billed "The 100,000 Gathering:
Restore the People's Rights". No one, save for those in the
helicopter, could see the entire sea of humanity, which was spread by
police cordons into various nearby locations. At least 50,000 people
were involved, while some insist the figure surpassed 100,000.
The organizers were elated. The evening before, police had detained
six demonstrators in a chilling warning of what "reformasi" supporters
could expect if they turned up. Newspapers and television had quoted
the authorities as saying that those who took part on Sunday would be
harshly dealt with.
In jubilant mood after the gathering was Saari Sungib, chairman of the
event's organizing committee. Saari apparently had to disguise himself
with a scarf and helmet and ride a motorcycle to the ceramah to avoid
detection. "We would like to claim we got 100,000. This is the first
time in the history of Malaysia that the people could walk all over
and sit on a major highway," he told Asia Times Online.
That they did. Never has there been such a Malaysian traffic jam in
which so many people were smiling and laughing. One family spread
newspapers on the road and had a picnic. Another group of about half a
dozen Muslim men prayed, their foreheads touching the road. A young
Malay lad walked around with a tray selling drinks. Another couple
sold copies of the opposition Rocket newspaper from the back of their
car. Others chanted "Reformasi!" and "Undur, undur; undur Mahathir!"
("Resign, resign; resign, Mahathir!) Strangers greeted each other with
the "thumbs-up" sign.
Groups of young men stood on the concrete road divider holding large
banners proclaiming "Reformasi has taken over the Kesas highway". Some
saw a deeper meaning in the highway takeover: many grumble about
highway tolls, arguing that Mahathir's privatization policy has not
benefited ordinary Malaysians, who have to pay ever-increasing road
tolls and utility rates.
The crowd was largely ethnic Malay, many with entire families in tow,
but groups of young Chinese and Indian Malaysians - some university
students, others activists - could also be seen among them. Not
everyone looked happy though. When asked what was happening, one Malay
man replied sourly, "It looks like some kind of pesta (carnival)."
Others remained in their vehicles, caught up in something they didn't
quite understand. But they were a tiny minority.
No matter that most of the "reformasi" supporters could not be at the
actual ceramah (forum) site. There, the leaders of the four main
opposition parties - Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail of keADILan
(the National Justice Party), Fadzil Noor of PAS (the Islamic Party),
Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, and Syed Husin Ali of
Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Party) - were delivering
speeches. As soon as they had finished, police fired tear gas into the
crowd. Azizah, in a wheelchair due to a recent leg injury, was
immediately surrounded by a human shield, lifted out of her wheelchair
and whisked to safety.
"As we were telling them [the crowd] to leave, the police ambushed
us," Azizah was quoted as saying. "The crowd was very quiet."
As the crowd from the ceramah site returned along the Kesas highway
with banners draped around them, they were greeted with more cries of
"Refomasi!" by those on the other side of the road who had been unable
to reach the rally. On an overpass, a group thumped a metal billboard
which read, ironically: "Malaysia Milik Kita: Teruskan Tradisi Ini"
("Malaysia is Ours: Continue this Tradition").
But amid the euphoria emerged news of the price some had to pay. More
than 100 people were detained and rights activists said they only had
the names of about 40 of them. News reports said police were seen
kicking and beating some detainees as they led them away while
damaging some cars and motorbikes with their batons. One Internet
news-site reporter said his roll of film was confiscated. Among the
pictures was one of an opposition supporter with head injuries.
Cynthia Gabriel, an organizing committee member at the scene, said:
"We honor the brave people of Malaysia who displayed tremendous
courage despite the odds, despite the intimidation, despite all the
negative propaganda. We support their right to peacefully assemble, to
peacefully express dissent and their call for reforms and change." She
expressed hope that all those arrested would be released
unconditionally as "their only crime was to exercise their
Elizabeth Wong, of the human rights group Hakam (Malaysian Human
Rights Society), observed: "The fact that the Malaysian police reacted
in such a repressive manner shows that they have not learned their
lessons ... More importantly, the 100,000 people who turned up today
represent the majority of Malaysians who are saying 'enough is enough'
to abuse of state power."
For keADILan, which spearheaded the event, the turnout was a
tremdenous boost. Long in the shadows of PAS, it proved that it
continues to have a significant following across the country.
Thousands had converged along the highway from other states on the
peninsula. "The previous night nearly all the budget hotels around
Kuala Lumpur were heavily booked," keADILan secretary-general Mohd
Anuar Tahir told Asia Times Online. More importantly, it was a
psychological victory for the opposition Barisan Alternatif
(Alternative Front) coalition after months of cementing inter-party
"This is the beginning of the end for Mahathir," said one rights
activist. "I give him 15 months at the most." Well, maybe, maybe not -
after all, Mahathir is the ultimate survivor. But even he must be
One thing is clear. Those who felt that "reformasi" would fade away
with time have been proven wrong in a way that could not have been